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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JAMES CARROLL

The data mine

As computing power grows, so does the threat to personal autonomy

I was a teenage cryptanalyst. For three summers during college, I worked at the FBI’s Cryptanalysis-Translation Section in an anonymous former garage on Capitol Hill — the “mystery building.” More accurately, I was a cryptanalyst’s aide. The FBI, in cooperation with the National Security Agency, intercepted secret cable traffic to and from foreign embassies in Washington, D.C. The intercepts came to our unit as encrypted pages consisting only of numbers, grouped in fives. The mind-numbing job involved manually counting digits — a primitive form of the letter-frequency analysis that was commonly used to decipher text — and endlessly feeding punch-cards into a room-sized UNIVAC mainframe computer. Of course, the ciphers in question were unbreakable, which made the effort seem futile.

Yet what seemed like such drudgery back then has turned out to be revolutionary, for yesterday’s war-driven cryptanalysis gave rise to today’s computer-driven information technology. The contrast between our clumsy work with UNIVAC and today’s sophisticated computing makes the latter look all the more impressive. Yet it also sends a warning: As the pace of technology accelerates — not just in ever-slicker consumer gadgets but also within the spy world — the kind of electronic surveillance that many Americans find disturbing today will soon look as primitive as having a college student counting digits on sheets of paper.

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